Swedes have confidence in its revenue collecting authority, the Swedish Tax Agency. This is by international standards quite remarkable especially as we Swedes pay a fairly large percentage of our income in taxes. So how does it do it?

Shaping Taxpayers provides a fiscal anthropological approach to taxation that makes explicit what knowledge a tax administrator applies when it seeks to collect taxes accurately and efficiently. The book provides insights into the broader workings of this Agency; we learn how it mediates the application of tax law while it strives vigorously to obtain legitimacy in society. The book follows one risk assessment project ethnographically; from its inception, through the research phase, in presentations throughout the Agency to its final abandonment as the results and conclusions reached did not align with the Agency’s strategies. It was one of the largest analysis project ever undertaken and provides a good illustration for understanding issues that the Agency considers in its daily work creating compliance. Following this project ethnographically reveals how diverse knowledge claims – legal, economic, cultural – compete to shape taxpayer behaviour.

One input to the risk assessment project was a random audit control yet its outcome was unexpected. Not only were certain deductions more prevalent than originally thought among a specific category of taxpayers; the random audit control also raised questions about the interpretation of law in practice. Could such deductions even be controlled? Such insights are difficult to communicate, as they contradict not only the message that all taxpayers provide their fair share, but also that the Tax Agency can apply the law equitably and fairly.

Taxation of ploughing snow?

Using a snowplough at farms kept recurring for discussion among the analysts as a silly and extreme example of what interpreting the law to the letter would mean. Most snowploughs are paid for by the farm – not by the farmer. Following the law to the letter would make usage of such a snowplough in front of the farmer’s private house income and thus taxable. What the law says and what is done in practice differs, from both the taxpayer’s and the Agency’s perspective. If the farmer shovel snow in front of his barn, it is part of farming activities; should he shovel with it in front of his house it should be subject to preferential tax. A good plough could also be used to shovel snow in front of the neighbour’s house; as a friendly gesture or in exchange for something else having value. Regardless, there should according to the law be an estimate of what this service was worth and this value ought to be added to personal income and subject to tax assessment. Such incomes from snowploughing are seldom, if ever, found on a tax return. Even if the farmer knows that such costs ought to be subject to tax, they are just too cumbersome to evaluate and to account for. Who would make such an economic estimate and more explicitly put such income in the books? Besides, why bother to pay tax on something that is not detectable in the first place?

Overall, I argue that research on tax compliance requires a holistic approach. We cannot only rely on risk analyses, surveys and interviews to understand why people comply but need to see how taxation, in a broad sense, is done in practice. Like in a good audit, we need to see that people actually do what they say they do.